Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Problems with Mangoes

I've never really had any major issues with my graduate career. I've always felt I was progressing, even if slowly. I've never been really upset at my advisor, or unhappy with my situation.

But I've encountered a problem recently. It won't do any good to describe all the details, so I'm going to take a cue from Candid Engineer and just tell the story using "mangoes."

Last summer, my advisor realized that there were a lot of students and professors on campus studying mangoes. Some studied how to eat mangoes, some how to grow them, how to peel them, and some how to measure mangoes. But the problem was everyone was doing their own little pieces for their own degrees, and nobody was actually doing the whole process. So nobody was getting to eat any finished mangoes.

So - brilliant idea - my advisor started a summer collaboration between all of the students, and the goal was to create a mango factory. Everyone would contribute their expertise, and together we could eat mangoes day in and day out.

That was fine, but as usually happens, we didn't finish all we wanted to during the summer. Our mango factory sat dormant, and my advisor wasn't satisfied. So the next summer (this year) he started the factory again, part II. Here's the problem - between last year and this year, all of the other mango-studying students graduated. I'm the only one left from the original project.

Now, at the end of this summer, we are VERY CLOSE to having a fully automatic mango factory. I am trying my hardest to finish this project. My goal is just to get a few mangoes through the factory, collect some data, and call it a day. I have already spent a lot of time this summer on the mango factory project.

Here's where the frustrating part comes in. Last week in the mango factory meeting, I was basically told to go back and rebuild my mango-making machine. I could do this. I have a lot of ideas on how to make the mango machine better. But I DON'T WANT TO. I want the factory to be good enough as is, I don't want to do a revised version, even if it would be better.

I am trying to move on. The mango factory was my Master's work, and I'm trying to get on with my PhD. I passed qualifying exams a year ago, I need to make progress on my PhD.

And the kicker is - the other students involved in the factory part II this summer are Master's students, leaving soon (one in August, one in Jan). So come next year I will AGAIN be the only one left who has worked on the mango factory project. I don't want to work on this project NOW, and certainly not any more AFTER they leave, either. But I'll be the only one with historical knowledge.

I am going to talk with my advisor tomorrow. I think I may recommend that if he wants to keep the mango factory active (or, ahem, rebuild any of the machinery), he needs to hire another student to do that.

Do you think that's the right approach? Or is it common to get stuck on time-sucking side projects? Wish me luck.


  1. how about charging 750$/hour as a consultant in the project and you hire someone to do the scut work? as consultant, you cannot spend more than 8 hours per week on the project

    Money making A.L.

  2. I think it is a perfectly reasonable expectation. Often times my boss comes up with fancy ideas that he tries to pitch me. Sometimes I will present him data and he will ask me to do a really complicated experiment that won't help push my data towards the "publish worthy" stage. Oftentimes I tell him or ask him something reasonable such as "Do you think this will help us publish the paper?" or "Does this fit in the aims of my thesis?". Usually the answer is obvious and we decided not to do the experiment or work and move on. I think if you present your issue in a logical way it would be hard to ignore your point of view.